Excerpt from Wooden: The Sam Gilbert Years
Excerpt from Wooden: The Sam Gilbert Years (cont.)
© 2014 by Seth Davis, all rights reserved. Adapted from Wooden: A Coach's Life, by Seth Davis, published on Jan. 14, 2014, by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York.
As dominant as the UCLA Bruins were during their perfect 1966-67 season, in which they went 30-0 and beat Dayton 79-64 in the NCAA final, coach John Wooden had every reason to expect them to be even more imposing the following year. After all, the entire starting lineup, including 7'1" center Lew Alcindor, was supposed to return. Unbeknownst to the coach, however, the team was in danger of suffering two defections that could derail those plans. The events that prevented that from happening set in motion a chain reaction that would slowly but inexorably undermine the very integrity of UCLA basketball.
It started as a typical bitch fest by two college kids. Alcindor was feeling socially isolated and bitter in the wake of winning the national championship. As he vented his feelings to guard Lucius Allen, he discovered that Allen felt the same way. They railed against the school, the lily-white student body, the unyielding coach who treated them like cogs in a machine. Most of all, they spoke of their loathing for a system that deprived them of the chance to make extra money even as they generated mountains of revenue for their school. Alcindor and Allen complained so much that they decided that they had to do something. So they hatched a plan to transfer.
Once Allen started putting the word out that the two of them were thinking of leaving, he was flooded with offers. The most serious conversations took place with people connected to Michigan State, who, according to Allen, promised to take care of their every financial need. "We were plotting, saying, How can we get out of here?" Allen said. "We didn't commit to anything, because we were scared to death of John Wooden. We had that much respect for him, even though we talked about him like a dog."
During their lowest moments, Allen and Alcindor sought out Willie Naulls, a star forward-center for the Bruins in the mid-1950s who had gone on to a 10-year NBA career with four teams. Allen and Alcindor knew that Naulls, an African-American, could relate to what they were going through. "I had a lot of personal contact with both [Lew] and Lucius," Naulls said. "They were unhappy, and they came to see me." Naulls empathized, but he also wanted the players to remain at UCLA. So he introduced them to a man who he thought would be able to alleviate their problems.
The man's name was Sam Gilbert. He was a plump 54-year-old real estate developer who lived in the tony neighborhood of Pacific Palisades and worked out of a penthouse office in Encino. Gilbert had been serving as a mentor to Naulls as he made his transition from pro basketball to business. Gilbert was also cagey and hardheaded. Naulls said that Gilbert "liked to refer to himself as one of the mules of the world. People who accomplish things."
A self-described "fat little Jewish matzoh ball," the 5' 9" Gilbert grew up in Los Angeles, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. He played basketball for Hollywood High before attending UCLA, but he had to drop out of college to earn money. His father had owned a small movie studio in the late 1920s, and for a time Sam worked in its film lab. He later dabbled in inventing before moving into the real estate business and overseeing the construction of office high-rises and expansive residential communities. Gilbert was one of many entrepreneurs who rode Southern California's postwar building boom to a life of great privilege. He was an intelligent, worldly man who spoke French, Russian and German, wore a Bavarian fedora to UCLA basketball games and loved to tell stories about his brief career as a middleweight boxer. ("I was grossly mediocre," he said.) Gilbert might not have pursued a career inside the ring, but his pugilistic attitude served him well in business. "He's a bundle of dynamite," Naulls said. "Sam is a heavyweight. He can take care of himself in any situation against any opponents. Whoever attacks him better be ready. Sam doesn't fear anybody."
After Naulls had several conversations with Alcindor and Allen about their unhappiness, he asked Gilbert if he could take the players to Gilbert's house. Gilbert agreed. Naulls took them on a Sunday morning, and they bonded with Gilbert over bagels and lox. "I told Lucius, 'Man, you become instant Jewish,' " Gilbert said. "He took me seriously and said, 'No offense, but I've got enough problems without being Jewish.' "
Gilbert was as charming as he was savvy, as generous as he was ruthless. Once his tough-guy veneer was stripped away, he revealed the soft, gentle heart of a mensch. He was already a millionaire, so it didn't seem to Alcindor and Allen that he was looking to make money off of them. They believed Gilbert simply wanted to lend advice and ease their anxiety.
"I hadn't met either of them, but they had told the school they were leaving," Gilbert said in 1974. "We didn't even discuss basketball, just people, the world and general feelings. By 2 a.m. they had gotten it all out of their systems." As an immigrant's son, Gilbert found he could relate to these boys, despite the differences in their ages and races. "I was an adult who could rap with them on their own level and who understood the black-white syndrome, which most schools want to brush under the carpet," he said. Alcindor concluded that Gilbert "took a genuine liking to me and wanted to see me do well," while Allen called him "probably the most beautiful person I knew. He was a giving person."
After that first meeting, the players were welcome to go to Gilbert's house anytime. They usually went on weekends, when Gilbert laid out a big spread. ("My Jewish soul food buffet," he called it.) Spending time at that house meant spending time with Gilbert's wife, Rose, a highly respected English teacher at Palisades High. The players thought Rose was just like Sam, only tougher. "I told Lewis he should go to Harvard," Rose said. "He was smart enough."
When Alcindor and Allen went to the Palisades, they didn't have to worry about being treated like stars. In the Gilberts' house, Sam was the star. What they found instead was a sanctuary away from the tumult of their daily lives. "They could sit down on the couch and relax or go swimming, and nobody would bother them for a signature," Rose said. "Sam was their father figure, because they didn't have any, frankly. Coach Wooden was a very good coach, but I don't think he ever got into the personal life of the kids."
Gilbert, however, provided Allen and Alcindor with more than just a place to put up their feet. He also helped them with their financial worries. "Sam is everybody's Jewish grandfather," Alcindor said. "He could get it for you wholesale." He started by buying their university-issued game tickets for more than face value. Gilbert also squired his young friends around town. They loved how he would drive down the boulevards, point at buildings, and say, "That one's mine. ... That one's mine." On those forays around town, Gilbert frequently took the players into stores that were owned by his friends. The boys didn't mind so much getting the star treatment there. Allen said, "We'd walk into a leather shop, and he'd say, 'Lucius, I want you to meet my friend here.' The guy would say, 'Oh man, I love UCLA basketball. Tell you what. Anything in here you like, just take it.' And being college kids, we found a lot that we wanted. He had somebody that would give me a jacket. He had somebody that would buy me a pair of slacks. So now I'm thinking, this is more like it."
The connections were fruitful even if Gilbert wasn't around. "I could go to 23 different restaurants on the West Side, walk in with my entourage -- [guard] Mike Warren, Lew -- and we'd just eat. Didn't have to pay," Allen said. "The [owner] would say, 'I want you to come here every night. When you come here, it increases my business.' "
Though Allen didn't think anything was improper about all of this -- "I was naïve and stupid," he said -- these arrangements were clear violations of the NCAA's policies on amateurism. Even so, they were commonplace around the country, as evidenced by Allen's conversations with those people connected to Michigan State, and the NCAA had yet to make it a priority to clamp down on them. In fact, the NCAA had only recently decided to devote its resources to punishing rules violators. For the first 45 years of its existence, the association had not had any regulatory authority over its schools. It had relied on what it called "home rule," which left it up to the schools themselves to maintain honor. That started to change in 1948, when the NCAA formally adopted what it called a Sanity Code, which laid out a set of rules covering financial aid, recruiting, academics, institutional control and amateurism.
Three years later the NCAA hired Walter Byers to be its first executive director, and it assigned him to create a national office in Kansas City that would enforce the Sanity Code. In 1952 Byers filed his first case report, which suspended Kentucky's basketball program for one year because of "pay for participation in athletics," which its players had received in connection with a point-shaving scandal that had originated at City College of New York and New York University, effectively ending the basketball programs at those schools.
Still, it wasn't until 1964 that Byers put in place an infrastructure at the national office that was empowered to investigate schools more thoroughly. Along with establishing a three-member Committee on Infractions, the NCAA for the first time codified a principle mandating that "penalties should be broad if there is a basic institutional pattern of nondeservance, narrow if violations are isolated and institutional dereliction is not involved." It was in this respect that Gilbert's relationship with Allen and Alcindor was so dangerous for UCLA. Gilbert's favors were clearly not isolated. They were part of a pattern that would continue for several years, with no real effort undertaken by Wooden or anyone else at UCLA to stop it.
Not that any of this mattered to Gilbert. He had a low opinion of the NCAA and its antiquated rulebook. "My dad once said that amateur athletics is administered by amateurs," said Michael Gilbert, Sam's son. Allen and Alcindor were already steeped in black nationalism, the civil rights movement and the burgeoning counterculture. They did not need to be persuaded about the evils of white repression.
"I had very little respect for the NCAA," Alcindor said. "That was one thing that Sam really helped me understand, how we were being exploited. His whole thing was, don't hurt yourself, but you don't have to worry about the moral fiber of all this, because there is no moral fiber there. It's just a façade."
Besides, Gilbert did not exactly invent the archetype of the overly helpful fan. In many ways he was a direct descendant of the doctor who went to Purdue basketball coach Piggy Lambert in 1931 and offered to pay Wooden's expenses at the school, or the owner of the semiprofessional basketball team from South Bend, Ind., who persuaded Wooden to risk his amateur status as a sophomore. And Gilbert was small-time compared to the New York wiseguys who nearly brought down the entire sport during the point-shaving scandal of the early 1950s.
At UCLA, the specter of the rogue booster was established long before Gilbert came along. Earl Schulz, the former Cal guard who was named all-city in Los Angeles in 1957, recalled that after he decided he would go to Berkeley, a UCLA alumnus picked him up after class, drove him around Beverly Hills and regaled him with promises of cushy jobs at local movie studios. "He asked me, 'What do we have to do to get you over to this school?' " Schulz said. A few years later, Bruins guards Walt Hazzard and Freddie Goss frequently ate for free at Hollis Johnson's restaurant, which happened to be where Wooden, a man of devout habit, had his own lunch every day. "Any time we were hungry, Walt and I would go there and Hollis would fix [a meal] up and bring it to us in the back alley," Goss said. "We didn't see that as big. What's a hamburger and a milk shake?"
The same moneyed crowd that slipped the players five bucks for rebounds during the Hazzard-Gail Goodrich years in the early 1960s were still treating players to events around town. "There was always some rich guy that was willing to take you to a game or something," said UCLA guard-forward Kenny Heitz. "I saw Sandy Koufax's perfect game from a second-row seat because some travel agent took us. Was it against the rules? I have no idea."
Long before the Bruins were playing in Pauley Pavilion, players were selling their university-issued tickets for face value or more. "It was usually a manager or a trainer, and they'd ask you if you wanted your tickets for the home game," Bruins forward Mike Serafin said. "It was pretty neat to have 60 or 80 bucks, and you could go out. It wasn't until about 20 years later that I thought about that and wondered, was that even legal?"
Freddie Goss found his own Jewish grandfather in a man named Al Levinson, who owned a major steel company based in the Compton neighborhood of L.A., where Goss grew up. Levinson took such good care of Goss that Goss called him Uncle Al. Levinson, in turn, called Freddie "Preacher" because of his strait-laced Christian upbringing. Goss could walk into Levinson's posh Bel Air home anytime, raid the fridge, turn on the TV and make himself comfortable.
To help Goss with his money problems, Levinson "hired" him to work at his office. "He gave me 10 dollars an hour to study and make straight A's. That was big money in 1960," Goss said. "I remember he had a picture of Marilyn Monroe and a stock ticker in his office. I'd go there every day to study after school." Goss said he never discussed this arrangement with any of his coaches, but Wooden knew who Levinson was. When Goss had to spend Thanksgiving in the hospital his senior season while recovering from a mysterious back ailment, Wooden and Levinson visited him together, along with a judge who, Goss assumed, was in Uncle Al's pocket.
Levinson's association with UCLA ended abruptly when Bruins athletic director J. D. Morgan accepted a $1 million gift from oilman Edwin Pauley to finance an on-campus pavilion. Levinson had been led to believe that his name would be on the building. Goss did not learn about the rift until the night in 1965 that the arena was christened with a Salute to John Wooden and a freshman-varsity game starring the freshman Alcindor. "Al wasn't there," Goss said. "I got upset. I left Pauley Pavilion, drove to Bel Air, went to Al's house. He said, 'What do you want, Preacher?' I asked him why he wasn't at the game, and he told me J. D. Morgan had dogged him around. He never went to a game after that. There was a big void, because there was no big booster around until Sam Gilbert came along."
In the years before Naulls took Alcindor and Allen to Gilbert's house, Gilbert had been just another benign friend of the program, buying tickets from players and helping them get jobs around town. Keith Erickson remembered him as one of the guys who stood outside the locker room handing out oranges and apples. Serafin had a similar recollection. "When I was a freshman [in 1963-64], the entire freshman team went to his house, played pool and had dinner," he said. "There wasn't anything more to it than that." Gilbert developed a particularly close friendship with Don Saffer, a Jewish 6' 1" guard from Westchester, Calif. "He was my angel," Saffer said. Saffer collected tickets from a few of his teammates and gave them to Gilbert, who sold them above face value and gave Saffer the cash.
Still, that was child's play compared to what Gilbert was now doing for Alcindor and Allen. The players knew they had to keep Wooden from finding out, which wasn't hard because he rarely inquired about their personal lives. "He was on his own little island," Allen said. "The assistant coaches, the alumni, the Willie Naullses, they made things happen. They left Coach out of the loop. I can't think of an alum that would have enough gall to go up to Coach Wooden and tell him there was something illegal about his program. Coach was just too far along on the other side of that."
If anything was going to jeopardize that, it was Gilbert's audacity. Since he felt no shame about what he was doing, he didn't see any reason to hide it. Radio producer Bob Seizer, a former Daily Bruin writer, once found himself in Gilbert's office after meeting someone for lunch in the same building. Gilbert complained that too many other UCLA players were asking for the same kind of help he was giving to Alcindor and Allen. "He said, 'If I buy Lew Alcindor a leather jacket, the whole team wants 'em,' " Seizer recalled. "He said he was going to get 20 guys to chip in. I said to my partner, 'Is this guy nuts? Does he know what will happen if that gets out?' "
Bruins assistant basketball coach Jerry Norman had known Gilbert as one of many UCLA alumni who helped players get jobs, which was allowed under NCAA rules. Norman grew suspicious when Alcindor called him one day from Gilbert's office. The coach delivered a gentle warning to the center. "Look, I don't tell you how to live your life, but the little bit I know about this guy Sam Gilbert, if I were you, I'd be very careful," Norman said. "Down the road -- maybe not this year, but at some point -- he's going to want to extract his pound of flesh."
Alcindor disregarded that advice. For him, Gilbert was a godsend. He didn't just help Alcindor with his money problems; he also taught Alcindor the basics of business and economics, about budgets and investing and tax advantages and long-range planning, concepts that Alcindor's working-class father could never have imparted. "Sam introduced me to the language of finance," Alcindor said. "He said it was like knowing what the pick-and-roll is." Alcindor and Allen took such a liking to Gilbert that they started calling him Papa Sam, or Papa G, or just plain Papa.
Would Alcindor and Allen really have transferred if Naulls had not introduced them to Gilbert? Allen thought so: "If not for Sam Gilbert, [Lew] and I were going to Michigan State as a package. It was a done deal. Michigan State at that time knew how to take care of their ballplayers, and I'll just leave it at that. We didn't think there was any chance we'd be taken care of like that at UCLA because of who our coach was. ... My stipend was $92 a month, and I was living in Westwood. I came from a part of Kansas City that I was very fortunate to get out of. Sam Gilbert and the alumni buying my tickets allowed me to live and buy food and clothes."
In later years, Alcindor contended that all of that talk about transferring was just that -- talk. "I feel like that had a lot more to do with being homesick than being a realistic option," he said in 2006. "Transferring would have really been a setback. When you're 19 years old, you think the world is your oyster and they better serve it up quickly. It wasn't being served quickly enough. That's all it was, teenage angst."
That was also the story that Alcindor gave to Wooden. "From what [he] told me later, no one had any influence, Sam Gilbert or anyone else, about ... the possibility of leaving," Wooden said years afterward. "I don't think they discussed it seriously."
But in his 1983 autobiography, Giant Steps, Alcindor (by then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) gave the transfer possibility more credence. As long as their coach and their Papa remained in separate silos, the center indicated, Allen and Alcindor could make Westwood their home. "Sam steered clear of John Wooden, and Mr. Wooden gave him the same wide berth. Both helped the school greatly," Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "Once the money thing got worked out, I never gave another thought to leaving UCLA."
Gilbert continued to lavish favors on UCLA players in violation of NCAA rules for the remainder of John Wooden's tenure. Gilbert also represented Alcindor, Bill Walton and many other former Bruins during their contract negotiations with the NBA. The NCAA never investigated Gilbert's activities that took place while Wooden was coaching, but in 1981, six years after Wooden retired, the NCAA imposed sanctions on the Bruins basketball program -- including two years' probation and a one-year ban from the NCAA tournament -- for infractions associated with Sam Gilbert. The NCAA also ordered UCLA to disassociate Gilbert from the program. Gilbert died in 1987 at age 74.
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